Relabelings vs. External References

by Chris_Leong 2 min read20th Sep 20195 comments


I want to highlight a conceptual distinction that is key to my understanding of consciousness and epistemology. There are fundamentally two ways in which we can define entities and much confused is created by failing to separate the two.

The first way is a relabelling; to define something in terms of what we've already defined. If we've already defined what is meant by a hydrogen atom and an oxygen atom and what a molecule is, then we can simply define water as a molecule consisting of one hydrogen atom and two oxygen atoms. Defining water in this way does not necessitate us to postulate a new entity in our fundamental ontology.

The second way is an external reference; to say that a word refers to something outside our system of language or meaning. Some people assert that we can only define something in terms of things that have already been defined, but if that were the case, then we wouldn't even be able to get our first definition of the ground. We'd end up with our definitions either being circular or some kind of infinite regress.

This isn't an issue that we can fully resolve, but there is a workaround in that we can have things in our system which point to external entities, without being fully able to say what they are. For example, we might only be able to define how quarks interact with each other but not say what their nature actually is apart from being things that interact in that particular way (some might say that behaviour is all that there is to the nature of something, but then what's the difference between an atom and a simulation of an atom?). If this were the case, then we'd have to define them as an external reference.

Here's another way of putting this: Relabeling defines a new entity in the map; external references posit a new entity in the territory.

Relabelings don't change a system

Creating a relabeling or adding a new entity in the map doesn't affect the territory. Here's an example: Let's suppose I introduce a new label "Gaia" and I say that by this I only mean the natural world and nothing more. I'm allowed to define terms however I want, however I shouldn't use this to trick you into accepting the connotations of the term, such as that nature has an order or nurtures us. Perhaps we wouldn't object if the person argued that nature had these properties separately and was using the term to emphasise those aspects, but we shouldn't accept an argument by definition.

We can also see this as a Motte and Bailey argument. The Mott is the claim that they are just using a slightly unusual term for the natural world. The Bailey is that the natural world has the properties we tend to associate with this term. Or in my terminology, Gaia is a relabelling and it can help us understand and talk about the system, but introducing it doesn't change anything. For any argument we can make using the term "Gaia", we should be able to make the same argument without it (see: Tabooing your words). Adding the relabelling "Gaia" into the system doesn't add order or nurturing into the system; if they are present, they should still be present even if we remove that definition.

Here's another example: Suppose we say that an object is beautiful if it meets certain aesthetic criteria. Again this is just a relabeling; just of a much more complex set of conditions. Someone might argue that it is intrinsically valuable for beauty to exist in the world, even if no-one ever experiences it. This may or may not be true, but we shouldn't believe it just because of the connotations that they snuck in. It makes sense to taboo the word and realise that what they are saying is valuable is just atoms in particular combinations. It then seems natural to ask, "What is so special about these combinations that makes them valuable when other combinations are not?"

And indeed the only thing that is immediately obviously special is that they create a certain experience when viewed by a human. But then, in order to be intrinsically valuable, and not merely instrumentally valuable, shouldn't there be something special about these combinations of atoms when not viewed by a human? Perhaps the proponents would have an answer to this argument, but the goal here isn't to argue against this perspective, as much as a naive argument for this perspective.

Next Steps

Ultimately, I'm trying to build up towards making a point about consciousness, which I know will be controversial since I tried making it here before and it met with significant opposition. I decided that it would be logical to take a step back and clarify my epistemological stance, in the hope that it might reduce the chance that we end up talking past each other.